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Foundation mends Vietnamese hearts that may have been stricken by wartime use of Agent Orange

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As she so often does, Marichia Simcik Arese will host one of her unusual crafts boutiques this weekend at her Pacific Palisades home.

And two days after that she will head for Vietnam to encourage the disabled young artists who create chic water bottle carriers, tote bags and eye-catching picture frames to keep producing their stylish goods from discarded plastic bottles, old bicycle tires and recycled aluminum cans.

Since 1998, Arese's do-it-yourself Spiral Foundation has raised more than $1.6 million selling the handmade items to finance heart operations for Vietnamese suffering from congenital heart diseases and other genetic conditions believed to be tied to the spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The sales have paid for 380 heart surgeries so far at a medical clinic in Hue that has come to rely on the 57-year-old Pacific Palisades woman's boutiques and on individual gift bazaars staged by a network of her supporters.

Video and photos: Healing a wounded heart

Arese travels three times a year to the Southeast Asian nation, spending about a month there as she helps drum up business for a gift store she has helped them establish in Hue: the Healing The Wounded Heart shop.

The Italian-born Arese doesn't hesitate to approach American and European tourists she spots on Hue's streets.

"Hi. We have a shop down there and it's a nonprofit. We sell beautiful, eco-friendly items and all the money we make is used for humanitarian aid," she tells them.

"Approaching complete strangers is rather easy. I tell them that instead of buying a souvenir that has no added value, tourists can buy nice items made of recycled items. They are helping to fund heart surgeries and employ the disabled."

Many of the young artists who make the gift items and work at the shop are deaf and mute or paralyzed. There is no official Vietnamese sign language, so many of the young people have devised their own. Others communicate with computers provided by the Spiral Foundation.

Arese does not blame Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the United States to destroy vegetation that hid communist forces during the war, for causing all the birth defects and other medical problems some young Vietnamese face.

"But certainly in Vietnam, when these kids were born, there was very little early intervention. They were left on the side; very little opportunity was given them," she said.

During her visits, Arese makes a point of introducing the 40 or so young artisans and shop workers to patients who have benefited from the cardiac surgery their handiwork has paid for. They come away realizing that their work has turned them into donors too, she said.

Dr. Nguyen Viet Nhan, director of the Office of Genetic Counseling and Disabled Children at the Hue College of Medicine and Pharmacy, describes Arese as the clinic's "special sponsor from Los Angeles."

Arese said she grew up during Vietnam War protests and remembers a 1974 explosion at an Italian plant that produced Agent Orange. In 1997 she visited Vietnam as a tourist and encountered disabled young people who collected aluminum cans and fabricated picture frames out of them to sell for school money.

Arese told the youngsters to send her 50 of the frames and she would try to sell them in Pacific Palisades. They ended up shipping 300, causing her to scramble to find buyers for them all.

But she did, and she sent the $7,100 she raised to the disabled youths. They kept $1,775 of that for their own education and sent the rest to a remote village in northern Vietnam to pay for schooling for 10 Hmong orphans.

Their generosity stunned Arese, prompting her to create the nonprofit Spiral Foundation sparking her continuing focus on Vietnam.

Details of this weekend's boutique are available on spiralfoundation.org, where many of the craft items are offered for sale. Prices range from $5 to $50.

Arese's husband, sound editor James Simcik, and their two sons, Nicholas and Martino, are supportive of her work. Nicholas, 27, a doctoral candidate focusing on migration and human rights, will travel with her to Vietnam this time. Martino, 22, is an undergraduate studying sociology and conflict resolution through sports.

"Any kind of war always creates damages that go far beyond where the war happened," Marichia Arese said.

"We should not count only on large institutions making a change. Change is possible if you commit to a good idea."

bob.pool@latimes.com

A video produced by Los Angeles Times videographers Katy Newton and Sean Connelley, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, is available at http://projects.latimes.com/vietnam. The interactive package was created during a fellowship with the Vietnam Reporting Project and the Renaissance Journalism Center.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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